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For senators, missing journalist casts ‘cloud’ over U.S.-Saudi relations

President Trump says he’ll meet with the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who has been missing for more than a week. Turkish officials say Khashoggi was likely murdered by a group of Saudis in Istanbul. It’s spawned calls for sanctions on Saudi Arabia from Capitol Hill. Nick Schifrin discusses the politics behind the mystery with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The case of a missing journalist could have a major impact on the United States' relationship with historic ally Saudi Arabia.

    Jamal Khashoggi has not been seen for more than a week, when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia says it doesn't know where he is. But Turkish officials say he was murdered and that the accusation has led to a new effort today on Capitol Hill that could end in sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

    Nick Schifrin starts our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The last time Jamal Khashoggi was seen alive, he walked into Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate thinking he was safe. The 59-year-old prominent journalist had told friends not to worry.

    His fiancee waited outside, expecting him to emerge with papers allowing them to marry. But just hours before, 15 Saudis flew into Istanbul to be what a Turkish official told local media was a hit squad.

    A newspaper close to the government reported the men had connections with Saudi military and intelligence, and it also published their movements, including one of the planes they used to arrive at morning and leave that night.

    Turkish officials told international media these men likely kill Khashoggi on orders from Saudi leadership and dismembered his body with a saw. Khashoggi used to be a Saudi government adviser and always supported modernization efforts led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

  • Jamal Khashoggi:

    He is doing what we demanded of him to do. So why am I being critical? Simply because he is doing the right things the wrong way, very wrong way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He opposed MBS' tactics, what Khashoggi described as a crackdown on criticism, including female activists who've been arrested.

    Khashoggi said Mohammed bin Salman stifled dissent.

  • Jamal Khashoggi:

    So the environment in Saudi Arabia doesn't allow for constructive criticism or constructive debate and discourse about lively matter, matter that are going to affect us for the future.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham,R-S.C.:

    I have never been more disturbed than I am right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republican lawmakers have traditionally declined to criticize U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, but in a letter released today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and other leading senators triggered a process that automatically imposes sanctions on Saudi Arabia if it murdered Khashoggi.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    Yes, all of us are taking it very seriously and urging pretty dramatic steps to be taken.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Capitol Hill skepticism has been rising with civilian casualty reports from Yemen, where the U.S. supports a Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels.

    But the reports about Jamal Khashoggi are pushing lawmakers to increase pressure on the administration. The administration is beginning to respond. A White House statement said National Security Adviser John Bolton, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talk with Mohammed bin Salman and — quote — "asked for more details" and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process.

    And President Trump increased the pressure on Saudi Arabia when he said he wanted to meet Khashoggi's fiancee, who appealed to the president and Melania Trump in a Washington Post op-ed.

  • Donald Trump:

    We're in contact with her now, and we want to bring her to the White House. We will have to find out who did it. But people saw him go in, but they didn't see him come out, as they understand it. And we're going to take a very serious look at it. It's a terrible thing.

  • Question:

    Have you spoken to the Saudis?

  • Donald Trump:

    I would rather not say. But the answer is yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We take a deeper look at what this could mean for U.S. and Saudi relations with Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. He sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.

    Senator, thank you so much for joining us today.

    The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the ranking member and you have been working on a letter that has just been released. What does that letter say? What kind of pressure are you trying to put on the administration?

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    So, under existing global human rights law passed by the Congress and signed by the president, the ranking Democrat and the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have the ability to ask the administration to come to a finding on a potential gross violation of human rights abroad.

    And that's what this letter asks, for the president to make a determination as to whether Jamal Khashoggi was indeed executed by the Saudis, as has been alleged.

    Now, I think you have to take this letter with a grain of salt, because it is asking the administration that has shown very little interest in getting to the bottom of this story to come up with a definitive finding, which they may be unlikely to do. But at least it requires the administration to now go through a process by which they will have to do some fact-finding to discover whether, as we believe, the Saudis executed this journalist.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That process last about 120 days, as I understand it.

    Do you expect — or perhaps do you hope that sanctions will be imposed on Saudi Arabia to show them that there are consequences if indeed Jamal Khashoggi was murdered?

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    So, if those sanctions have to be triggered by a presidential finding, then my expectations are low.

    I think the Trump administration has not shown much interest in trying to figure out what happened here. And, of course, we know that there is this deep and unconditional bond that has been created between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family that I imagine the administration is not going to be interested in breaking.

    So if we are to impose sanctions or have some consequences for the potential murder of this journalist, it's probably going to have to be Congress acting on its own. So I'm glad this process is taking place. I was glad to sign a letter. But I also don't have high expectations that the administration is going to trigger sanctions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This letter demands additional sanctions, but do you think, in the meantime or in addition, the U.S. should, for example, cut off arm sales to Saudi Arabia?

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    I think it's time for us to cut off arms sales.

    I will be honest. I have argued that we should do that separate and aside from the allegations concerning this journalist. But we're going to have to send some signal in the short term that the deliberate targeting of a journalist, a U.S. resident journalist, is unacceptable.

    It may take a long time for the administration to work through a sanctions regime. We can take the immediate step as Congress of suspending arm sales to the Saudis. I think that that would be — I think that's worthy of discussion in the Foreign Relations Committee in the upcoming days and weeks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's zoom out here to talk about the region and U.S.-Saudi relations.

    The U.S. administration's priorities in the Middle East are to counter Iran, counter violent extremism, to get to some kind of attempt for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Saudi Arabia is critical for all those three things.

    So why do you have some criticism of the administration for leaning on Saudi Arabia, for using Saudi Arabia as a linchpin across the region?

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    Well, there's no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been key in creating a kind of detente in the region between the Sunni nations and Israel.

    But on our other two objectives, the nature of the U.S.-Saudi alliance today is actually running counter to our stated goals in the region. By backing the Saudis play in Yemen, for instance, we are actually making Iran stronger, because the longer that civil war goes on, the deeper Iran gets involved in the Houthi resistance there.

    And we are actually helping fund radical groups all around the world by continuing this alliance with the Saudis, who quietly funnel money to an intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism, that forms the building blocks of a lot of these Sunni extremist groups around the world.

    So, unfortunately, I think the nature of our alliance with the Saudis actually runs contrary to many of our goals in the Middle East.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I have asked many officials in the Department of Defense about the war in Yemen, and they say that, look, Saudi Arabia isn't perfect. Of course, there have been civilian casualty incidents inside Yemen, but they are our ally. We need to stand by them. And they are on the same side as us when it comes to Yemen.

    Do you believe that Saudi Arabia is on the same side?

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    No, I don't think they're on the same side. And I think that they have been misrepresenting the nature of the war inside Yemen. They have been telling us that they're not trying to hit civilians, when the evidence is to the contrary.

    The evidence tells us that they are targeting civilians, that they are targeting civilian infrastructure. It's not that they're missing their targets. It's that they're actually hitting their targets.

    And I think, if it turns out that they have been lying to us over the last few days about the murder of Khashoggi, which I would argue they probably have been, then I think that's further evidence to tell us that they are also not telling us the truth when it comes to the way in which targeting is conducted inside Yemen.

    All the evidence tells us that they have been trying to hit civilians, and they have been succeeding. And we should withdraw from our military partnership inside Yemen, because we should never be part of any military campaign, even if it's with a named ally, in which civilians are the target.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    Thanks.

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